Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Please clue me in to good Moroccan books

Ma femme and I are thinking of going to Morocco is January. She has been doing the reading, not me. I do not, it turns out, know where to start.

When I made my Senegalese reading list, I was pretty ignorant. But not as ignorant as I am about Moroccan literature. There are degrees. When I look at the bibliography of Tahar ben Jelloun, a big deal, I know that, the titles mean absolutely nothing to me. The Sand Child (1985) and The Sacred Night (1987) have been translated into the most languages, so maybe that's a clue. I don't know. An unusual number of the most famous books are memoirs, which may mean something.

As I have noticed with other young literatures, Moroccan books are generally short, so the cost of just diving in is low. That's what ma femme has been doing. She has not found the masterpieces yet. Plenty of good books, yes, but nothing really great. I think her favorite so far has been Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams (2008), in which Shah mixes Moroccan storytelling traditions with his own family story (he's the son of Sufi expert Idries Shah).

Sometimes, she has been more unfortunate. Stay away from Edith Wharton's In Morocco (1920) if you want to retain respect for that writer. Her grand pronouncements about "the Oriental mind" are best buried and forgotten.

If anyone has suggestions about good Moroccan books, they would be most appreciated. Books by Moroccans, or books about Morocco. If they're really, really good, that would be even better.

One disclaimer: feel free to recommend, advocate, praise, and sing to the heavens books by William Burroughs and Paul Bowles. But I ain't readin' 'em. Not for his trip.

20 comments:

  1. Are you familiar with Words Without Borders? An excellent resource for this sort of inquiry:

    http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?sec=Morocco&sec2=Africa

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  2. If I may grump for a minute, my request is unfortunately the kind of thing Words Without Borders doesn't do well.

    They cover newer books well. But I want something like The 10 Greatest Novels by Moroccans, and the 5 Best Books about Morocco. Words Without Borders isn't in that business, and probably shouldn't be.

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  3. One author I haven't read yet is Elias Canetti. The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit may be more of a travel book than you would like, however, but I'll throw it out there.

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  4. Now that Canetti book, that's a short one - 100 pages. So that's a good recommendation, thanks!

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  5. die geneigte LeserinSeptember 9, 2009 at 7:08 PM

    I've read the Canetti book, and it's fine. But honestly, it is the thinnest of travel books. He was there for a very short time and makes no pretense of offering anything more than a few impressions.

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  6. Well, I only just learned this, so I can't vouch for it, but apparently Richard Hughes wrote something called In the Lap of Atlas: stories of Morocco. But as you may know I would just about follow him to the ends of the earth. I want to read this now myself. Available at university libraries in my area but also cheaply on AbeBooks. Hmm.

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  7. Google Alert sent me a flag that you were mentioning my book, IN ARABIAN NIGHTS.,.. and that's how i found your very good blog. Suggest getting a copy of MOROCCO TRAVELLER'S COMPANION, by Robin Bidwell, reprinted 2005 by I B Tauris. It's an anthology of great writing on Morocco through the ages. With best wishes, Tahir Shah, mangorains@aol.com

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  8. Thanks a lot - at least three books here I'm likely to sample. At least one of the Lalami books, definitely.

    What a kick that Tahir Shah stopped by - welcome, thanks for the book suggestion. The internet is like magic.

    Nicole, I looked at the Hughes book. It's a collection of Arabian Nights-like fables written by Hughes while in Morocco, for some private reason. He only published a couple of them. Weird. I think I will read it.

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  9. That is weird. I was wondering why he was in Morocco--there was no indication of it at all in his not-too-sparse Wikipedia entry, so it all seemed a bit confusing. Well I hope if you do read it it does not disappoint.

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  10. Morocco -- that's a literary stumper for me. Unless Casablanca was a book, I'm at a dead end. :) You make the list, and I'll come back and steal . . . um . . . borrow it.

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  11. Rose City, I doubt this will turn into anything like my Senegalese book list. I'm just too ignorant.

    Having said that, I read a Laila Lalami novel this weekend, so I guess I'm on my way.

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  12. A quick glance at last year's African Reading Challenge (another one of my failures, but still) shows NO books on Morocco. But you might find something if you dig around.

    http://tukopamoja.wordpress.com/africa-reading-challenge/

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  13. zhiv, it's become clear to me that Moroccan literature has very little presence or visibility in English. It's not necessarily a language issue - Algerian literature is better known.

    Or anyway, better known to me, which I guess is not the same thing.

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  14. You might be interested in Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan who writes about women, the third world, and Islam. I picked up one of her books at a friend's house and read part of it on the spot, fascinated, but I don't remember now which one it was. I have Beyond the Veil now, which I haven't started yet.

    You might also check out the Rough Guide travel guidebook series. They are all written by different people and vary greatly in quality, but the one I had when I lived in Jordan had an extensive bibliography for the country in the back that was right on target.

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  15. Nijma, I looked at a couple of travel guides - Lonely Planet and one other. That's partly where I discovered my ignorance. Here are a bunch of books. But are they, ahem, good? And, how good?

    How specialized are the Fatima Mernissi books? They look a bit daunting. But they're on my list now, so thanks.

    By the way, in answer to your query at Languagehat: I'm a restless reader, and, frankly, how many John Greenleaf Whittier poems does anyone want to read at a sitting?

    I know, trick question: None! But for me, one or two. Then I need another book.

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  16. I just saw this request. I'll give you a few titles/authors in French, and let you see if they exist in English, okay? These are great books, but I've only read them in French myself. They are all by Algerian authors.

    From the colonial period: Ahmed Sefrioui, La boite a merveilles, and Driss Chraibi's Le passe simple.

    From more contemporary times: Fouad Laroui, Les dents du topographe; Edmond Amrane el Maleh, 1000 ans et un jour.

    And one woman author for you: Rajae Benchemsi, Fracture du désir.

    Good luck!

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  17. Thanks so much. My library has the Chraibi book in English. It should be on its way.

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  18. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles is set in Morocco. It's good and probably wonderful to read if you're actually there.

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  19. Thanks for the recommendation. I have to say that I'm a little skeptical, though.

    I do not know what I'm talking about, so please correct me - but is The Sheltering Sky really about Morocco? I mean, if the characters were wandering around in the southern Sahara rather than the northern, or in the Gobi Desert, would anything change?

    Plus, we're not going to be in Tangier. Although we are hoping to get to the desert, just to the edge.

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